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In a report dating back to the pandemic, 80% of people explained an increasing pressure to be productive rather than creative at work.
In fact, since the switch to remote working in 2020, countless studies, articles and blog posts have been published on how to be more productive, how to increase team productivity and (my personal favorite) why one perk in particular is dead. The headlines read:
- “RIP ping pong…“
- “No offense to the ping pong table, but…“
Suddenly companies spot at the ping pong table. Customers don’t want to pay for it, they said. Employees want better working conditions, they said. But here’s the thing: The ping pong table was never an employee benefit. That “tah-tap, tah-tap” was the soundtrack to our workdays. The background against which we conceived, brainstormed and developed creative strategies, wrote clever texts and designed great visuals. It is a buzz that cannot be reproduced during a Zoom call.
I’ve spent my career – 29 years so far – working with and for marketing agencies, and there’s one thing I know to be true: desk spaces were electric. They vibrated with the buzz of ideas, and that’s because we – the people at the agency – vibrated with the buzz of ideas. Creative breakthroughs were a daily occurrence because we worked in an environment that fostered them.
The ping pong table represents creative energy. A game or two gives your mind something else to focus on so ideas can bubble to the surface. It’s the same reason you probably come up with your best ideas in the shower – you’re relaxed. Now that everyone is at a distance, there is no buzz. It’s a buzz that just can’t be simulated during a Zoom call.
Productivity became the most pressing concern in the wake of Covid-19. But productivity isn’t the problem – lack of creativity is. Think that:
- 55% of respondents on a 2021 Owl Labs Survey said they worked more hours remotely than when they were in the office.
- A recent Deloitte study found that: 77% of employees report feeling burned out in their current position.
- Nearly 70% of participants in my own (admittedly unscientific, yet telling) LinkedIn survey revealed that creativity is more of a struggle than productivity.
We work longer and that takes its toll.
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Most of us who have spent years in the agency world are creative souls at heart. And while many of us probably started our careers in a creative role — writer, designer, videographer, illustrator, strategist — most can’t stretch those creative muscles the same way anymore. Our creative output suffers, and we hunger for that creative energy.
How can we recreate it in a world of remote working? Even marketing agencies have succumbed to the productivity debate. If you’re feeling a little hollow, it’s time to make room for creativity.
1. Make downtime a ‘feature’
Arianna Huffington explained that during the industrial revolution machines were made to minimize downtime. But as humans, our operating systems work differently. For us, “downtime isn’t a bug,” Huffington said, “it’s a feature.”
And downtime shouldn’t be synonymous with staring at your smartphone. Cell phones cause us to evade a deeper connection with ourselves. Just before we get an “aha!” moment, our brains are “blinking” That blinking is a stream of alpha waves that let us focus inward and make connections between our ideas and the knowledge stored there. These lightbulb moments tend to happen when we’re doing something passive (driving a car, taking a shower, falling asleep).
In an office environment, it is the spontaneous conversations that create these moments. It’s shooting Nerf hoops in the creative director’s office or hitting that little hollow ball back and forth. And those moments are harder to find these days. Put your phone down and…
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2. Practice mindfulness
If you don’t free up and protect creative space, you’re cheating yourself and your agency by not putting your best, best self to work every day. Slowing down allows us to think of ideas we hadn’t considered.
This kind of mindfulness is not something we can follow in 15-minute increments on the job. Our ‘hustle culture’ rewards at all costs. It glorifies multitasking and prioritizes deadlines. But when everything in your inbox is marked as urgent, when all client projects are labeled a “hot rush”, and when every account manager competes to finish their client’s work first, burnout occurs. We burn the candle on both sides, skip lunch and still don’t get much done. To-do lists don’t get crossed out – they get longer.
It’s time for agencies to embrace “slow work” instead of hyper-productivity. It’s a concept writer Cal Newport from The New Yorker calls “sluggish productivity” and it is intended to reduce the volume of work for which we are responsible on any given day.
After six straight months of 10-hour workdays — eight of which were Zoom calls — I finally embraced the idea. As chief strategy officer of a global content marketing agency, my agenda was packed with meetings. I told my team that every other week would be a “quiet week”. I would only attend meetings that were absolutely necessary. Otherwise, I’d spend those weeks conceiving, writing, and quietly working on major projects and client campaigns.
The first two days of that first quiet week were wonderful. I could spend more time on thoughtful research. I questioned theories and outlined strategic ideas. On day three, the emails and messages started. They all started with the same sentence: “I know it’s your quiet week, but…”
I had to train my team to know what they really needed me for and what meetings could take place without me. And I had to train myself to say “no” to requests that weren’t essential to our business. You can do the same by following one rule…
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3. Block creative time
Block your time in two-hour increments per day with notes about the client or project you’re working on. Not only does this tell your team that you will be unavailable during those time periods, but it also allows you to move from one project to another without constant interruptions and helps you stay focused on a single task.
Let your team know you’re making a change so you can get support. The model of billing for every minute to be profitable is not only outdated and impractical, but it also harms employee health and pushes talented professionals forward. Most importantly, by modeling this behavior, you also give your team permission. And that’s a vital change in office culture that can help you retain your most valuable employees at a time when many are looking to make the switch.
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Agency executives: it’s up to us to change the model.
If you’ve been tracking your team’s time for years, it’s time to use that data to make smarter decisions and create a new model for the agency of the future. What will it look like? What will the soundtrack be? How can we scale and grow while improving profitability?
We haven’t lost all of our creative abilities – we’ve just lost them. So, for the sake of agencies — and for brands that rely on agencies to make it happen — let’s hope the ping pong table makes a comeback.